Letters: ‘A Luxury Service At a Bottom-Wage Price’

Readers weigh in on the pitfalls of the gig economy.

An Amazon distribution center in Phoenix, Arizona (Ralph Freso / Reuters)

I Delivered Packages for Amazon and It Was a Nightmare

Last month, Alana Semuels recounted her experience driving for Amazon Flex for a day. The service allows drivers to get paid to deliver packages from their own vehicles. But is it a good deal for workers?

I loved your article about working Flex.

I did GrubHub deliveries for several months last year while trying to make a career change. It was easily the most depressing experience I’ve had, because of several things:

1. You are not your own boss. You are controlled via algorithm for maximum profit extraction, taking on all of the risk with what is typically your largest asset (your vehicle). You have to be where they want, when they want, doing what they want.

2. You are exposed to stunning class disparity. While you’re hustling for $18 an hour (before taxes and expenses, of course), you’re delivering to people in million-dollar condos that won’t tip more than 10 percent.

3. You’re providing a luxury service at a bottom-wage price. This is the most galling element: Having hot food delivered on a whim is ostensibly one of the most upper-class things imaginable. It’s entirely a luxury service, but people treat it like it should be a “deal,” or at a rock-bottom price with absolutely perfect service each and every time.

4. The GrubHub Facebook groups are full of deniers, class traitors, and people who express their “gratitude” for “having a job at all.” I get all of these arguments, but it makes it seem hopeless—how could we ever organize these people, or make them realize that they’re taking on all of the risk and getting literally none of the reward? What chance is there to possibly change things when everyone is so precariously oriented that they’re grateful for having a chance to make terrible wages at an incredibly risky and expensive job?

5. You realize that there’s a full-blown class war being waged from within and without the lower classes, and the upper class is utterly obliterating everyone. In their comfortable decorum, they talk about choices and personal responsibility—but seem to barely exercise any of these much-heralded traits themselves. If trickle-down economics don’t work, then the trickle-down narrative certainly does. There’s nothing sadder than seeing people who have been taken advantage of be happy that they’re being taken advantage of, peddling a story about work that actively harms them and their cohort.

Amazon is just one of these companies; there’s an entire industry built on this incredibly shaky foundation. It relies on real knowledge of the extreme desperation and precariousness that anyone in the working class faces. It is a crude and brutal application of statistics, computing, and the internet.

The worst thing about it is that once the music stops and this business cycle ends, no one knows what happens to this industry. If there aren’t paying customers, there aren’t these “jobs,” which is an equally frightening idea.

We’ve created a permanent precarious underclass of people serving the fortunate, who are increasingly demanding and brutal to their underlings. It is a frightening and ugly situation.

The replies to your story that you mentioned on Twitter are as interesting as the story itself. Our culture has created this monster and has absolutely no tools of decency or civility left to deal with it.

So—thanks for taking on a big task. I appreciate the article and your clear writing about this complex issue.

Luke Gardner
Chicago, Ill.

Several readers responded on Twitter:

I got a bunch of emails and Twitter messages from people like Luke who also worked in the gig economy and found it to be a pretty bad deal—a few Amazon Flex drivers even told me that I had actually missed some of the most hellish parts of being a Flex driver (like just how frustrating it is to “sip and tap” all morning and not get a shift.) But I think Luke goes a little deeper in pointing out something very astute in regards to the “full-blown class war” being waged among some workers. On Twitter, a number of current Flex drivers and others mocked me for complaining about Flex, and seemed extremely angry with me for writing this piece. They discussed, among themselves, how other Flex drivers and I should stop whining and just get used to working hard. But, as Luke writes, these are the same people getting paid very little for a contract job that they may lose at any moment. It made me wonder, why are they getting angry at me? Rather than railing against me for expecting too much from a job, shouldn’t they be expecting more? It’s one of the strange things about this economic moment, in which there are growing divides between the haves and the have-nots: A share of the have-nots seem fiercely opposed to any suggestion that the status quo is somehow not ideal.